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Current Anthropology Volume 58, Supplement 15, February 2017 S000

From Internet Farming to Weapons of the Geek


by Gabriella Coleman

Hackers and their projects have become routine, authoritative, and public participants in our daily geopolitical
goings-on. There are no obvious, much less given, explanations as to why a socially and economically privileged
group of actors, once primarily dened by obscure tinkering and technical exploration, is now so willing to engage
in popular media advocacy, traditional policy- and law-making, political tool building, and especially forms of direct
action and civil disobedience so risky that scores of hackers are currently in jail or exile for their willingness to expose
wrongdoing. Why and how have hackers managed to preserve pockets of autonomy? What historical, cultural, and
sociological conditions have facilitated their passage into the political arena, especially in such large numbers? Why do
a smaller but still notable fraction risk their privilege with acts of civil disobedience? These are questions that beg for
nuanced answersbeyond the blind celebration or denigration offered by popular characterizations of hacker politics.
In this article I will provide an introductory inventorya basic outline of the sociocultural attributes and corollary his-
torical conditionsresponsible for the intensication of hacker politics during the last 5 years.

In January 2015, after delivering a talk about the protest en- broader, deterministic forces driven by technological develop-
semble Anonymous, I went out to lunch with PWa 40- ment itself.
something Dutch hacker now living in Canada whom I rst But this explanation was just for context. He continued by
met in 2002 while conducting research in Amsterdam. Given expressing surprise at the current state of affairs whereby both
his expertise in cryptography, the conversation naturally drifted individual hackers and hacker organizationsmany of which
to the subject of Edward Snowdena former government con- were intimately familiar to himincreasingly assume prom-
tractor who exposed the NSAs secret surveillance programs. inent geopolitical roles in sculpting our immediate history. As
PW, long involved in the battle for privacy, beneted from the he offered his commentary, I nodded in agreement: by this
following situation: many hackers experienced Snowdens act point I had been researching the politics of hacking for many
of whistle-blowing as a wake-up call. Scores of technologists years, and while strong pockets of activism or political tool build-
were spurred to pursue a privacy agenda through the com- ing have long existed (Jordan 2008; Jordan and Taylor 2004),
munal development of encryption tools. these were but small corners of activity in a vast territory.
Over lunch I asked him what he thought about the con- Today the landscape has dramatically changed, and in a very
temporary state of hacker politics. PWintensely involved in short period of time. In the past 5 years, hackers have signif-
the hacker scene for his whole adult lifedid not skip a beat in icantly enlarged the scope of political projects, demonstrating
tendering the following analysis: the political effects of hackers nuanced and diverse ideological commitments that cannot be
would emerge diffusely over an extended period of time, reduced to the libertarianism so often presupposed as the es-
productsjust as the Internet itself isof the types of tech- sence of a hacker ideology (Golumbia 2013). In particular,
nologies they work to build. To punctuate this point, he de- direct action or civil disobedience have surged in a variety of
scribed hackers as Internet farmers. Just as the rise of agri- formats and styles, often related to freezing websites through
culturalists massively altered human material relations to food distributed denial of service campaigns (Sauter 2014) or to
supplies, so too would hackers and their technologists allies whistle-blowing. We see lone leakers, such as Chelsea Manning,
alter the course of human history through their technological and also leftist collectivist leaking endeavors, such as Xnet in
artifacts. The effect of particular hacker individuals or orga- Spain. Other political engagements are threaded through soft-
nizations would be largely irrelevantmicrogestures within ware: for instance, protocols (such as BitTorrent) and technical
le-sharing platforms (such as the Pirate Bay) enable the shar-
ing of cultural goods (Beyer 2014; McKelvey 2014). Hack-
Gabriella Coleman is Associate Professor in the Department of Art ers conceptualize these platforms distinctly to suit a range of
History and Communication Studies at McGill University (853 Sher- ideological agendas: from anarchist to socialist, from liberal
brooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 0G5, Canada [gabriella to libertarian. Since the 1980s, free software hackers have em-
.coleman@mcgill.ca]). This paper was submitted 24 VIII 15, accepted bedded software with legal stipulations that have powerfully
27 VII 16, and electronically published 22 XI 16. tilted the politics of intellectual property law in favor of access

q 2016 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2017/58S15-00XX$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/688697

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S000 Current Anthropology Volume 58, Supplement 15, February 2017

(Coleman 2013; Kelty 2008) and have inspired othersnotably certain hours of work were about to be nuked into oblivion (I
scientists, academics, and lawyersto embolden arguments for was right). Then this happened.
access (Delfanti 2013). Across Europe, Latin America, and the
United States, anticapitalist hackers run collectivesmany dou- Oct 8 23:48:02 kernel: [27653668.999445] Out of memory:
bling as anarchist associationsproviding privacy-enhancing Kill process 12731 (redacted) score 318 or sacrice child
technical support and services for leftist crusaders aiming for Sacrice child? I laughed and snapped a picture. Some
systemic social transformations (Wolfson 2014). Anonymous developer had implanted this humorous message in an oth-
has established itself as one of the most populist manifestations erwise dry (and for the technically illiterate, likely incom-
of contemporary geek politics; while no technical skills are re- prehensible) system log error message.1 I was reminded that
quired to contribute, the entity has used the attention gained by behind every piece of software is an auteur with a distinctive
high-risk hacking trysts to deliver its most powerful messages style. Though already familiar with hacker humorhaving
(Coleman 2015). dedicated a book chapter to the subject (Coleman 2013)my
Plainly, hackers can no longer be viewed as exotic experts: foul mood was replaced with elation: this was the rst time I
they have become authoritative and public participants in our encountered a joke embedded in technology without hunt-
daily geopolitical goings-on. There are no obvious, much less ing for one.
given, explanations as to why a privileged group of actors, once This sort of joke directs us to some unique features com-
primarily dened by obscure tinkering and technical explo- mon to hackers, at least when compared with other technolo-
ration, is now so willing to engage in popular media advocacy, gistssystem administrators, programmers, cryptographers,
traditional policy- and law-making, political tool building, and security researcherswho, like hackers, perform the same sort
especially forms of direct action and civil disobedience so risky of labor. Like hackers, all these technologists are quintessential
that scores of hackers are currently in jail or exile for their craftspeople driven by the pursuit of quality and excellence
willingness to expose wrongdoing. (Sennett 2009). The hacker adds something more into the mix:
Working technologists are economically rewarded in step a fastidious and explicit impulse for craftiness. To improve and
with doctors, lawyers, and academicsand yet these profes- secure computer technologies, hackers approach solutions not
sions seem to produce far fewer politically active practitioners. only with technical know-how and ability but also with some
Why and how have hackers, who enjoy a signicant degree of degree of agility, guile, and even disrespect. To quote an effec-
social and economic privilege, managed to preserve pockets of tive description offered by a security hacker during an inter-
autonomy? What historical, cultural, and sociological condi- view, You have to, like, have an innate understanding that
tions have facilitated their passage into the political arena, technology is arbitrary, its an arbitrary mechanism that does
especially in such large numbers? Why do a smaller but still something thats unnatural and therefore can be circumvented,
notable fraction risk their privilege with daring acts of civil in all likelihood.
disobedience? These are questions that beg for nuanced an- This oscillation between craft and craftiness, of respect for
swersbeyond the blind celebration or denigration offered tradition and its wanton disregard, is in itself not exclusive to
by popular characterizations of hacker politics. hackers or technologists. It is common among a range of labor-
This article will provide an introductory inventorya nar- ers guided by a crafting sensibility: from engineers to profes-
rative sketch of the sociocultural attributes and historical con- sors, from journalists to carpenters (Orr 1996). Indeed, aca-
ditions responsible for the intensication of hacker politics demics depend on and reproduce convention by referencing the
during the last 5 years. Probably the most important factor is a work of peers, but they also strive to advance novel and coun-
shared commitment to preserving autonomous ways of think- terintuitive arguments and gain individual recognition in the
ing, being, and interacting. Let us see how they are secured. doing. What is unique to hackers is how an outward display of
craftiness has surpassed mere instrumentality to take on its own,
The Craft and Craftiness of Hacking robust life; craftiness and its associated attributes, such as wit
and guile, are revered as much for their form as for their func-
Computers can be a daily source of frustration for user and tion. In contrast, for most craftspeople, craftiness is a means to
technologist alike. Whether a catastrophic hard drive crash
which, without a backup, can feel like a chunk of ones life has
been yanked away by dark, mysterious forcesor a far more 1. The suggestion to sacrice a child may seem like a random and es-
mundane search engine freezeafter having foolishly opened pecially mean-spirited message to send, one designed to shock the clueless
user. To those familiar with Unix-based operating systems, however, this
an eighty-fth web pagerarely does a week or even a day go
statement is technically accurate. In extreme memory-constrained scenar-
by without offering a computer malfunction. I found myself
ios, the Linux Kernel out of Memory Management (OOM) routine that
in this situation one day in October 2015. At the tail end of makes an algorithmic determination to stop a process (by sending a kill
a long day, I was replying to a slab of e-mails. Distracted, I signal) was done in this case to a subprocess (known as a child process).
foolishly opened that eighty-fth web page. My computer, Choosing what process to sacrice is a bit of a dark art and causes pro-
which runs a version of the Linux operating system, rst froze, cesses to die, potentially losing work, as a trade-off for regaining access
then went dark, and nally rebooted itself. Livid, I was fairly to the system again.

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Coleman Weapons of the Geek 000

an endone tool, often exercised tacitly, among others (Col- what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is
lins 2010; Polyani 1967). For hackers, the performance of craft- that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive
iness has long attained the status of an explicit pursuit, a thing me for (The Mentor 1986). While one might imagine a state-
valued in and of itself. ment such as this as the hyperbolic expression of an angst-
The most evident trace of the hacker quest for and adoration ridden, middle-class alienation, the truth is that whatever his
of craftiness is the sheer abundance of humor among them. No economic background, The Mentor wrote it at a particular junc-
ethnography would be complete without considering ita ture of his life: The following was written shortly after my
conclusion I arrived at when, sitting at a hacker conference, it arrest.
dawned on me that it was acceptable, even welcome, for an The Mentors biography is uncommon: most hackers never
audience member to interrupt a speaker in order to crack a face arrest. But the fact remains that many aspects of hacking,
joke (perhaps the only other group willing to spontaneously past and present, are littered with examples of disobeyed
defy social decorum in similar ways are comedians or drunk norms, rules, and sometimes laws. These repeated subversive
people). Once tuned in to the frequency of hacker humor, it acts not only support antiauthoritarian attitudes directly but
became clear that hackers inject humor into every social sit- also, as The Hacker Manifesto attests, do so through its me-
uation and artifact: there is a long tradition of inserting small morialization in the copious archives of hacker literary and
snippets of wit into code and documentation; and they even political writings. Indeed, illicit subversion must be understood
embed hidden puzzles (what they call Easter eggs) in code for as an originary condition of hacking itself. When phreaking
the amusement of those scrutinizing their work. Sometimes, (originally called freaking) and hacking established their cul-
technical cleverness regiments an entire technical artifact, such tural and technical legs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, rule
as the esoteric and irreverently named programming language breaking was often essential to gaining access to any equip-
BrainFuck. Hackers also have a long history of mischief mak- ment. For phone freaks, rule breaking was simply unavoidable.
ing and pranking; according to many, the term hacks was Their entire raison dtre was the exploration of phone systems
rst coined to describe a type of practical joke (Peterson 2011). and to link up with other phone enthusiasts in the doing; even
Crafty humor is evident in some of the hacker political battles if prot or malice were rarely part of their calculus, they
addressed later in this essay. (For detailed analysis of the nevertheless violated state and federal laws every time they
pervasiveness of cleverness and humor in hacker circles, see phreaked. The rst freak arrests occurred in 1961 (Lapsley
Coleman 2013; Goriunova 2014; Montfort 2008). Valorizing 2013:59), although it would be another few decades before
this craftiness even for noninstrumental uses, hackers invite their hacker cousins felt the full brunt of the law.
levity and play into their activities. Perhaps even more im- When compared with the freaks, university-based hackers
portantly, they also hone a crafty mindset for even nontech- rarely broke the law. But even among the small cadre of hacker-
nical pursuits, keeping it sharp and ready at hand for when a students enrolled in universitiessuch as Carnegie Mellon;
truly stunning hack is needed. the University of California, Los Angeles; Stanford; and MIT
rules were frequently twistedusually to land more time on
their beloved computer. In his account of the rst-generation
The Autonomous Mind-Set MIT hackers, journalist Steven Levy characterizes the hacker
proclivity to bend rules:
Easiest way to get a hacker to do something: tell them they
cant. (Institutionalized Oppositional Deance Disorder To a hacker, a closed door is an insult, and a locked door is an
[a hacker]) outrage. Just as information should be clearly and elegantly
transported within a computer, and just as software should
Craftiness depends on a vigilant criticality, a willingness to be freely disseminated, hackers believed people should be al-
scrutinize, always with a mind on identifying inconsistencies lowed access to les or tools which might promote the hacker
or upending convention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, another char- quest to nd out and improve the way the world works. (Levy
acteristic that might be identied as common to hackers is a 2010 [1984]:86)
dogged antiauthoritarianism, which manifests itself as a pro-
found skepticism toward institutions and other forms of en- These hackers were partially shielded from punishment be-
trenched power. While it might be tempting to see this as cause they were, after all, afliated as students. But a handful of
merely another journalistic clich, this attitude is genuinely preteen and teenage computer enthusiasts, too young to attend
encoded deep in the hacker cultural DNA. It is as apparent in university, also joined the informal club of technologistsat
their ippant, casual conversation as it is in their manifestos, times by sneaking illegally into the facilities at night, a practice
zines, and text les. which earned them the tting title of computer rats.
Emblematic of this ethos is the iconic The Conscience of a
Hacker, authored by a gure known as the The Mentor and
Collectivism and the Autonomous Spaces of Hacking
collectively redubbed A Hacker Manifesto. Published in 1986,
it ends with a deant confession: Yes, I am a criminal. My Despite differences in degree and typology of insubordina-
crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by tionin some instances, hackers disobey convention while in

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S000 Current Anthropology Volume 58, Supplement 15, February 2017

other cases, they relish breaking lawsantiauthoritarianism is that constitute hacker free spaces, such as Internet Relay Chat
evident across varied hacking lineages. While craftiness emerges and mailing lists (and BBSes in earlier eras), are not only easy
through technical practice and rule bending or law breaking for hackers to set up but are noncommercial zones on an In-
reinforce antiauthoritarianism, both mind-sets now constitute ternet almost dominated today by private interests.2
the rhetorical repertoires that hackers use to describe them- Hackers cobble together the communication technologies
selves. that double as hacker free spaces in distinct ways: some spaces,
Together, craftiness and antiauthoritarianism might be un- like those that facilitate free software projects, are structured
derstood to cultivate an attitude that is profoundly individu- and transparently documented institutions, while others, like
alistic or even antisocial. No doubt it is from isolating and ex- those that serve Anonymous, function as opaque, elastic, and
trapolating these characteristics that the myth of sweeping far-ung networks. Juxtaposing these two examples makes it
hacker libertarianism emerges. But the relationship between clear that hacker spacesand thus hacker socialityare by
hackers and individualism is more complex than these two no means monolithic. And yet both examples also function to
characteristics might suggest. As any sustained observation of dispel the myth that hackers are individualist, or against in-
hackers is quick to reveal, hacking is, in most instances, a hy- stitutions.
persocialized activity. Cooperation, fellowship, mutual aid, and While there are dozens to choose from, one of the most
even institution building are quotidian to the hacker experi- notable examples of a structured hacker organization is the
enceeven among the most subversive, rule-breaking practi- Debian Project. Founded in 1993, it boasts a thousand mem-
tioners. bers who maintain the 25,000 pieces of software that together
Even if craftspeople tend to work in solitudeand hackers constitute a Linux-based operating system. Some of the tech-
most denitely do, and as the stereotype goes, heavily caffein- nical engineers within Debian double as political architects,
ated and late into the nightmany aspects of crafting are and they have established the project as a federation, which
collectivist. Skilled workers gather in social spaces, such as con- functions something like a guild or workers cooperative. They
ferences or workshops, to learn, mentor, and establish (ever- have outlined intricate voting procedures for the purposes of
changing) guidelines of quality (Sennett 2009). Hacking is no governance and have articulated commitments and stipulations
exception to these dynamics. Whether acknowledged or not ratied in a series of legal and ethical charters and manifestos.
by hackers themselves, all types of hacking embody profound Before enrollment, all prospective members are tested on their
forms of social entanglement and feelings of communion. These knowledge of the projects technical policies, legal commit-
elements are established by a mutual adoration of technical pur- ments, and ethical norms (Coleman 2013; ONeil 2009).
suits and the pragmatic need to secure the help of others; cru- If Debian is congured as a sort of miniature societyand
cially, the collective development of technology is bolstered by given its social constitution and manifesto, having a very
social spaces, and hackers have long had and continue to build nineteenth-century, Enlightenment feel to itAnonymous, by
and inhabit many of thesemailing lists and image boards, code contrast, is more opaque, but expansive, functioning more
repositories, free software projects, hacker and maker spaces, informally as a scene (Straw 2014). While increasingly rec-
Internet chat relays, and developer and hacker conferences. ognizable as advocates for social justice and stewards of direct
These are sites where hackers gather, deliberate, and work action, they refuse to establish an ideological common de-
semiautonomously from the mandates and demands of their nominator much less universally applicable ethical statements
day jobs. They qualify as what scholars of social movements of the sort Debian has ratied. Spread across the globe and
designate free spaces. Usefully dened by one sociologist as inhabiting a range of technologiesTwitter accounts and a
settings within a community or movement that are removed multitude of chat rooms, some public and some private
from the direct control of dominant groups, are voluntarily Anonymous is a dynamic, moving target. Many Anonymous-
participated in, and generate the cultural challenge that pre- based nodes and collectives, whether small teams, larger net-
cedes or accompanies political mobilization (Polletta 1999:1), works, or simply groups of loosely connected Twitter accounts,
scholars of such spaces have tended to examine locales such as form, disband, and regroup in new ways in the course of weeks
independent book shops, women-only gatherings, bars, block or months. Others have existed in relatively stable shape now
clubs, tenant associations, and union halls. for 5 years. Still, most operations can be understood as some-
Free spaces are free not because they are open to everyone.
While some are inviting to all (e.g., a book shop or a public chat
channel), others spaces are regulatedsome loosely, others 2. There are some important differences between most hacker and
nonhacker free spaces. Compared with traditional free-space venues,
tightlyto control access and membership (a union hall or
whose costs of renting or ownership are signicantdownright exor-
free software project). They are free for being infused with
bitant if they are located in cities such as New York, London, Paris,
logics of independence: participants run these spaces collec- Vancouver, or Sydneyonline-based hacker free spaces can be main-
tively and autonomously, outside the penumbra of the direct tained at a comparatively modest cost, usually boiling down to fees for
control or even inuence of dominant institutions or values Internet access and labor to maintain systems. A longer account would
whether they be economic, political, cultural, or some com- have to address the material qualities of software because they help en-
bination of the three. Indeed, a couple of the core technologies sure the sheer abundance of free spaces among hackers.

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Coleman Weapons of the Geek 000

how well organized, but given its dynamic geography, Anon- to engage in the risky sport of computer trespass swelled, as did
ymous eschews stabilization. Combine these characteristics the technical watering holesthe free spaces of the erathat
with the fact that some hackers rely on partial secrecy, and these nascent hackers built to congregate, swap information,
Anonymous is distinctive (and refreshing) for how it resists and store contraband. Chief among these were Bulletin Board
extensive sociological mapping and thus categorization. Systems (BBSes), text-based computer hubs reachable via a
Where Debian proceeds from a set of rules, Anonymous is modem and phone. As the hacker underground grew more
like an antialgorithm: hard to predict and difcult to control. tentacles, its members ran increasingly afoul of the law (Dreyfus
They appear more akin to a cipher than a solution. Yet at both 1997; Sterling 1992). Crucially, arrests and subsequent pros-
these poles and everywhere in between, these participants are ecutions were enabled by new statutes with stiff penalties di-
social to the extreme. Anonymous members communicate con- rected specically at computer users and passed in the United
sistently (even if they do not know exactly who is on the other States (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986),3 Australia
endand Debian developers do, too) with individuals care- (Crimes Legislation Amendment Act in 1989), and the United
fully vetted by the project (to ofcially join the virtual project, a Kingdom (Computer Misuse Act in 1990).4
prospective developer must rst get their cryptographic iden- Throughout the 1990s, law enforcement coordinated mul-
tity veried by another developer, in person). tistate raids that targeted swaths of hackers and sought to shut
down the BBSes. Hackers were slapped with trumped up
charges and nes that rarely matched the nature of the crime.
State Intervention as a Political Catalyst
Bruce Sterling (1992), who chronicled the 1990s American
So far we have considered three crucial components of hacker clampdown, described it in no uncertain terms as a crack-
subjectivity that help us grasp their political subjectivity: the down, a deliberate attempt to nail the core of the operation, to
valorization of craftiness, the cultural cultivation of antiau- send a dire and potent message that would settle the hash of
thoritarianism, and the sustenance of fellowship around labor the digital underground for good (104).
in free spaces. These features do not in themselves account for The most infamous of the 1990s US-based arrests concerned
the hacker tendency toward political action. But by helping to the case of Craig Neidorf. Known in hacker circles by the han-
reinforce and reproduce independent habits of thinking, skills dle Knight Lightning, Neidorf was a cofounder of the pop-
suited to maintaining and governing technologies that enable ular e-zine Phrack (featuring hyperbolic and relentlessly anti-
both autonomous congregation and action and communities of authoritarian material, a healthy portion of which was expressly
mutual support, they form vital pillars capable of propping up the devoted to parodying the FBI). While Neidorf originally faced
forms of political action that ourish in the community today. 31 years in jail for circulating an AT&T technical memoran-
Yet while these components set the stage for action, the dum about the nations 911 emergency phone call system, it
thing still missing is a scriptand a problem to set the action was later revealed that the document was available at the li-
in motion. While hacker politics today are increasingly ori- brary for any member of the public to access. Ultimately charges
ented in response to the problems of outsiders, the original were droppedbut only after a costly legal battle. So astound-
catalyst that unites hackers in political action tends to emerge ing was his plight that it helped spur the founding of what is
when the community itself is threatened (Coleman 2016). now the largest nonprot for defending civil liberties in the
Thus, the major, and perhaps unsurprising, trigger of hacker digital realm, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
politicization has come about as a response to aggressive state Many subsequent cases were as troubling for how state pros-
and corporate hostility toward hackers and their technologies. ecution against hackers resembled persecution (Thomas 2003).
In this sense, the hacker public is also an apt example of what In the early 2000s hacker and phreak Kevin Mitnick engaged
Michael Warner (2002) identies as a counterpublicone that in multiple, indisputable crimes of computer trespassonline
maintain[s] at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of explorations that did not benet him nancially or cause any
its subordinate status (56). Here we can understand subor- permanent damage. Nevertheless, because he was a hacker,
dinate to mean simply that hackers, their activities, and their the Department of Justice jailed him for 4 years in pretrial con-
artifacts have frequently had their existence challenged by state nement followed by 8 months in solitary connement. Such
forces more powerful than themselves. But more to the point, harsh treatment was deemed necessary because law enforce-
hackers have been quick to sound a high-pitched awareness of ment ofcials convinced the judge that Mitnick could start
this subordinate status whenever the state or the market comes a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone.5
barreling down on them. Their response, typically, has been to While a great majority of the 1990s and 2000s cases involved
ght back. In the short history of hackerdom, such challenges computer intrusion, these hackers rarely sought to prot from
have appeared with a remarkable frequency. Below I will high-
light a tiny fraction of such events. 3. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-474, 100
By the 1980s phreaking was largely replaced by the avid ex- Stat. 1213, codied as amended at 18 U.S.C. 103 (1986).
ploration of computer networks, instantiating what is com- 4. Computer Misuse Act, 1990, c.18. Crimes Legislation Amendment
monly referred to as the hacker underground. With the avail- Act, 1989, No. 108.
ability of cheaper modems and personal computers, those willing 5. Cited in Mills (2008).

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S000 Current Anthropology Volume 58, Supplement 15, February 2017

their illicit jaunts into computer networks much less damage sued under the Digital Millennium Copyright Acta copy-
any equipment or data. Typically, their most substantial crime right statute passed in 1998 forbidding the cracking of digital
was hoarding technical data or defrauding the phone com- rights management. This criminalization led to a then un-
panies to make the free calls needed to explore more networks. precedented surge of protest activity among hackers, particu-
As a dozen high-prole cases plodded through the court sys- larly free software developers, across both Europe and North
tem, journalists wrote or spoke about mad hackers and real America. In addition to street demonstrations, many began to
electronic Hannibal Lecters.6 Branded by the courts and the share the code as a knowing provocation, a form of civil dis-
media as outlaws, the antiauthoritarianism harbored by hackers obedience: they republished DeCSS online, rewrote the origi-
only intensied and became marshaled in campaigns like the nal program in different computer languages, and printed the
Free Kevin movement, which devoted itself to exposing the DeCSS code on T-shirts. Some enacted even craftier forms of
plights of incarcerated hackers. protest. One hacker, Seth Schoen (2001), rewrote the program
Only a narrow band of hackers are willing to break the law mathematically as a haiku, or, to be more exact, as 465 indi-
for the thrill of exploratory joy riding (and then, the ability to vidual haiku strung together into one epic poem. Meant for
boast about the journey to their peers). Most hackers are law- the judges overseeing the legal cases, Schoen passionately de-
abiding citizens, some with little sympathy for the legal woes fended what he dually described as controversial math and
of their security-breaching colleagues. But when the condi- poetry. His text implores,
tions needed to write or distribute software are jeopardized
or software is itself targeted for censure or criminalization Reader, see how yet
they can be spurred to action, even direct action. technical communicants
Take the case of Pretty Good Privacy, a piece of public en- deserve free speech rights;
cryption technology designed to enhance the privacy of regular see how numbers, rules,
citizens. Principally authored by cryptographer Phil Zimmer- patterns, languages you dont
man, its international release in 1991 constituted a daring act yourself speak yet,
of civil disobedience, breaking international munition and pat-
ent laws predicated on the military uses of encryption (Green- still should in law be
berg 2012; Levy 2001, 2010 [1984]). The 1993 FBI criminal protected from suppression,
investigation of Zimmerman for possible munitions export called valuable speech!
without a license triggered developments in both the then
nascent idea that software deserves free speech protections and Although this poem was authored individually, it joined a
also the more general idea that publishing software could con- more collective insistence that free speech rights pertain also
stitute an act of revolt. Discussed widely on multiple online to acts of writing, releasing, and sharing code (Coleman 2013).
forums, hackers registered their support for public encryption Still, while the DeCSS legal imbroglio and its activist out-
by crossing international borders wearing T-shirts printed with comes became known to most every geek, hacker, civil liberties
legally protected encryption source code. As he was pursued by lawyer, and radical librarian at the time of its unfolding, con-
US law enforcement, a crafty solution was devised to dramat- stituting what is now popularly known as the digital rights
ically increase his chances for successfully challenging the ex- movement (Postigo 2012), it received scant coverage in the
port control laws he had broken: along with publishing the mainstream media, and its implications never really found pur-
source code online, MIT Press was persuaded to publish the chase in the broader public consciousness. That type of colos-
software blueprints as a book, thus ensuring that the interna- sal media coverage would only emerge a decade or so later,
tional sale of the printed code would be protected under the as names and gures such as WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, Ju-
First Amendment. Eventually, the FBI mysteriously dropped all lian Assange, Anonymous, Aaron Swartz, and Edward Snowden
charges and has to this day declined any explanation for the came to the fore. Alternatively supported by their hacker breth-
sudden change of heart. ren and despised by many in power, these gures nonetheless
A similar pattern of aggressive state intervention occurred became household names across the Western world.
between 1999 and 2001 with the release and attempted sup- WikiLeakss release of the Collateral Murder war video
pression of DeCSS, a short program designed to bypass access in April of 2010, followed by a large slab of diplomatic cables,
protection on commercial DVDs, enabling them to be played set the course of hacker politics in a new direction, catapult-
on Linux operating systems or outside of their specied re- ing gures such as Chelsea Manningwho was revealed to
gion. This time, the hacker-based protests were more wide- have leaked the content to WikiLeaksto global prominence.
spread. Following the arrest of Norwegian teenager Jon Jo- Beginning in 2011, Anonymouss wily media-spectacular ac-
hansen for his involvement in its development, some hackers tions made it clear that this sudden gush of direct action and
in the United States who shared or published the code were political activity would continue to ow for years.
Yet just like the previous generation of hackers, these gures
6. Geraldo Rivera Browbeats Craig Neidorf, RDFRN, http://www.rdfrn were not spared the attention of authorities. Chelsea Manning
.com/totse/en/hack/legalities_of_hacking/geraldo.html (accessed June 23, 2015). was sentenced to 35 years of US military imprisonment; Aaron

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Coleman Weapons of the Geek 000

Swartz took his own life after he found himself threatened erative one. As I have argued elsewhere, a homologous relation-
with a ludicrous 35-year prison sentence for downloading ship exists between the craft of writing code and intuiting legal
academic articles; and scores of Anonymous activists, such as texts: the modes of reasoning required to write code are similar
Jeremy Hammond, faced arrest and imprisonment for a range to those needed for parsing a formal, rule-based system such as
of hacking charges. Indeed, sometimes the powers brought to the law (Coleman 2013). While many hackers hold nothing but
bear on them were of an unprecedented calibre, marshaling contempt for the unjust laws and prosecutorial abuses of which
geographically extensive state forces, as in the cases of Wiki- they are often the target, they nevertheless display enormous
Leaks and Edward Snowden. Both Julian Assange and Edward interest in and facility with legal principles and statutes.
Snowden currently sit in an exiled legal limbo, in Ecuadors Hackers have been known to use this dexterity with the
London embassy and in Russia, respectively, because of the co- law in the service of social change both by diagnosing, avoid-
ordinated efforts of multiple Western states to prosecute them. ing, and arguing against laws they deem bad and, as in the case
Yet in one regard the response today has been markedly of free software, by detouring existing laws to assure their pro-
different. Rather than ignoring or demonizing the legal plights ductive freedom. But the faculty can be seen as more broadly
of these hackers, media outlets have instead publicized these useful still. While the following excerpt by historian E. P.
cases widely and sometimes sympathetically (Thorsen, Sreed- Thompson describes the saturation of the law in eighteenth-
haran, and Allan 2013). Meanwhile, producers of popular cul- century English society, it could equally be applied to the more
tural media now routinely portray these hackers as laudable general state of the Western world today.
heroes or antiheroes. Television shows such as Mr. Robot, House
I found that law did not keep politely to a level but was at
of Cards, The Good Wife, and Homeland feature prominent
every bloody level; it was imbricated within the mode of
and powerful hacker characters. Films such as Who Am I offer
production and productive relations themselves . . . and it
similar treatments. And documentary lms sympathetic to these
was simultaneously present in the philosophy of Locke; it
gures, such as Laura Poitrass Academy Awardwinning Citi-
intruded brusquely within alien categories, reappearing be-
zenfour, are now capable of earning the Wests highest cul-
wigged and gowned in the guise of ideology; . . . it was an
tural honours. This dual push of cultural celebration and au-
arena of politics and politics was one of its arms; it was
thoritarian crackdown seems only, thus far, to have swelled
an academic discipline, subjected to the rigour of its own
the ranks of hacker activists, maintaining the state antago-
autonomous logic; it contributed to the denition of self-
nism that prompts reaction while elsewhere popularly celebrat-
identity both of rulers and of ruled; above all, it afforded
ing those who react.
an arena for class struggle, within which alternative notions
Ever since, the most overt protests or ghts engaged by
of law were fought out. (Thompson 1978:96)
hackerssuch as WikiLeakss aggressive quest for radical press
freedom or Anonymouss contributions to all the major social For hackers, the law is more than a friend or a foe: it is their
revolutions transpiring in 2011have drawn in hosts of sym- reality. And this tight relation between hacking and the law
pathetic allies and bedfellows, extending the reach of their orig- has afforded an arena for many instances of struggle and
inal interventions into increasingly diverse domains. Spurred avoidance, even if not always class related. Hackers both ght
on by these exceptional events, many hackers previously wary for alternative notions of the law and insist on the realiza-
of political involvementand many of their less technical but tion of cherished legal principles that they believe have been
no less geeky cousins, tooare involved in full-blown activist corrupted. One class of legal precepts in particular, those of
and political organizing. civil libertiesprivacy and free speechhave settled so deeply
into the cultural and technical sinews of hacking that much
The Liberal and Radical Politics of Hacking of their advocacy is almost inseparable from the idea of the
hacker itself.
Now that we have identied the circumstances that prompt We can see this civil liberties acculturation at work in
some hackers to take a political stand, it is worth considering Edward Snowdens justication for releasing NSA documents
the tone and tenor of this political engagement itself. When detailing the pervasive citizen surveillance deployed by the
hackers do act, what is it they are ghting for? And how does it American and British governments. Hiding out in a Hong Kong
link with broader political trends and traditions? If hackers are hotel room, in an interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald
not the libertarians they are so often painted as, what are they? he explained,
Social anarchists? Rebels without a cause? Reformist liberals?
There is no single answer to this question, but an examination I remember what the Internet was like before it was being
of the way hackers engage with the law might at least give us watched. . . . You could have children from one part of the
some hints. And here, too, we nd more nuance than a blanket world having an equal discussion . . . where they were sort
antiauthoritarianism might suggest. After all, code functions, of granted the same respect for their idea in conversation
in many ways, as a law unto itself. with experts in a eld from another part of the world on any
Hackers do not only hold an exhaustively antagonistic re- topic. . . . It was free and unrestrained. And weve seen the
lationship to the law but also at times a scholarly, even coop- chilling of that and the cooling and the changing of that

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S000 Current Anthropology Volume 58, Supplement 15, February 2017

model toward something in which people self-police their dia initiative that has inspired countless copycats in its wake.
views. . . . It has become an expectation they are being watched. Conceived by hackers involved in planning the large-scale dem-
It limits the boundaries of their intellectual exploration. And onstrations during the 1999 World Trade Organization con-
I am more than willing to risk imprisonment than the cur- vention in Seattle, these hacker-organizers anticipated that the
tailment of my intellectual freedom.7 mainstream media would hijack the representations of protest ac-
tivity through tactics of simplication or distortion. They opted
For Snowden, the Internet ought to be a medium to actualize to develop an entirely alternative media system rooted in a novel
unhampered exchange of ideas and free thinking. For those content management system that allowed them to embed videos
of a similar mind to Snowden, a concern for civil liberties is not and photos into their online reports years before pundits (in-
separate or supplemental to an engagement with these tech- correctly) celebrated web 2.0 companies for inventing such
nologies: it is constitutive of the experience itself. Snowden functionality. With these tools it was hoped that protest or-
may be exceptional, insofar as he took on enormous risk to ganizers and rabble-rousers could bypass the media to become
expose the current depth of surveillance, but his vision of the the media.
Internet as a a moral order, as Chris Kelty (2008) puts it, is At the height of its operations, the Indymedia technical
one shared by countless geeks. The hacker commitment to team, spread across the globe, maintained over a couple hun-
civil liberties demonstrates a commitment to their own exis- dred journalism centers. These material forces helped propel the
tence as an entitywhat Kelty (2008) denes as a recursive broader social justice movement outward across space and for-
public, which includes the necessary liberties to pursue self- ward in time. And in so doing, a tight-knit network of rev-
dened cultural and technical activity. olutionary hackers was constitutedone that has continued to
Given the hacker interest in civil liberties, many of con- exist into the present, long after the counterglobalization
temporary hacker-led political endeavors also align with and movement was itself relegated to the annals of protest history.
even directly bolster liberal or libertarian aspirations. There are This hacker-cohort has since erected an alternative techni-
many such examples, including the chartering of Pirate Parties, cal backbone to the commercial Internet, one built on a prin-
designed to partake in liberal democratic politics (Beyer 2014; cipled refusal to monitor its users in the manner now normal for
Burkart 2014) or the watchdog functions of associations such Internet corporations offering supposedly free services (Mil-
as the German-based Chaos Computer Club, who routinely berry 2014). This infrastructure relies on a sizable roster of in-
work with journalists in various capacities (Kubitschko 2015). dependently run Internet service providers, many of which
The exemplary case of such a liberal agenda is civic hacking, are organized around consensus-based, anarchist principles.
which aims to develop tools that can solve problems inherent Around 28 exist across the world, and their names bear the im-
to the current Western political order. While this sometimes print of radical sensibilities: cybrigade, squat.net, systemausfall
means enhancing local services, it also involves attempts to .org, ag.blackened.net, hackbloc.org, mutualaid.org, riseup.net,
increase government transparency and accountability by mak- resist.ca, entodaspartes.org, MayFirst, and so on. The largest of
ing data and processes more readily available (Schrock 2016). this cluster is the US-based Riseup. Chartered by some of
Other hackers rely on civil liberties to incubate a more rad- the same hackers who founded Indymedia, the collective pro-
ical disposition, working to carve out pockets of autonomy vides secure e-mail and mailing list services to a user base that
or alterity (Sderberg 2007; Wark 2004). Adherents of free soft- is made up of both technologists and leftist organizations
ware, for instance, are able to build software in commercial or whose political agenda is often not anchored in technology
noncommercial settings without ever losing control of the ma- itself. Riseup members state that technology is not an end in
terial they produce. Anonymous, in discouraging and criticiz- itself but rather an aid in the creation of a free society, a
ing fame seeking and social peacocking, enacts a critical practice world with freedom from want and freedom of expression, a
of egalitarianism and solidarity (Coleman 2015), maintaining world without oppression or hierarchy, where power is shared
a critical space in popular social media platforms for those whose equally.8
ethics deviate sharply from the logic of individualized brand- These engagements show that the ideological sensibilities
ing (Marwick and boyd 2011). that animate hacker politics are diverse: just as we can locate
Elsewhere hacker politics take more resistive forms that are liberal hackers and projects, so too can we identify radical
outright contrary or antagonistic to liberalism and capitalism. hackers and projects and see how both engender social change.
There are many such examples of self-avowed anarchist, so- While a commitment to civil liberties can be seen as something
cialist, and Marxist hackers who build tools and support sys- of a universal among politically minded hackers, the reasons
tems for more radical forms of autonomy and sometimes for this commitment can vary. While liberals treat civil liberties
advance revolutionary projects aimed at systemic change (see as the essential condition of individual rights and mainstream
Juris 2008; Milan 2013; Wolfson 2014). One of the most mus- political participation (or access, or voice), radical hackers see
cular of these endeavors is Indymedia, a robust alternative me- civil liberties such as free speech and privacy as the gateway

7. Excerpt from the documentary Citizenfour, directed by Laura


Poitras (2014, Toronto: Praxis), emphasis added. 8. About us, Riseup.net, https://help.riseup.net/about-us.

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Coleman Weapons of the Geek 000

to more substantive projects that aim to enable equality and over time his views shifted as he began to judge the merits of
justice.9 And as one might expect, wherever the socialist and Anonymous in terms of its hacking accomplishments and not
anarchist left is more represented in societysuch as in Spain, its style of discourse. Ultimately, his decision to join forces with
Italy, Greece, Croatia, and Argentinaso too are leftist hacker Anonymous was based on a pragmatic calculus: the actions
projects more present and robust (Bazzichelli 2013; Corsin being executed mattered more than the absence of clearly ar-
Jimenez and Estalella 2016; Maxigas 2012). Some of these char- ticulated democratic visions and goals.11
acteristics can be explained simply. The ideological division of In my 15 years of research on hackers I have seen similar
political sensibilities among hackers often mirrors dominant logics and forms of reasoning at work numerous times. To be
and regional political patterns, but only up to a point. Other sure, notable exceptions abound: many of the leftist technol-
characteristics related to hacker tactics and political sociabil- ogy collectives discussed above restrict membership because
ity are more particular and imminent to the sphere of hacking of issues of trust. And political inghting has at times erupted
itself. over linguistic minutiaas in the Free and Open Source
While making information publicly available and debating Software movement, where one contingent accuses another of
it are undeniably supported by most hackers, many projects having adopted the term open as an alternative to free in
notably WikiLeaks and Anonymouschallenge the core liberal the late 1990s as a way to attract funding from investors made
fantasy that status quo channels of debate and ofcial, legally nervous by more explicit political language (Berry 2008).
sanctioned domains of politics (notably the electoral party sys- But in a striking number of endeavorsin activism, in pi-
tem) are sufcient to catalyze change. Hacker tacticsas evinced racy, in software development, and beyondhackers avoid
by tool making, legal reformulation, leaking, whistle-blowing, dening (and thus policing) the broadly dened ideologies
and especially direct action hackingdemonstrate a more forth- that all their participants must share (see Postill 2014 for a
right, hands-on engagement with politics than might be im- discussion of pragmatism and political hacking). While, as in
plied by their embrace of civil liberties. Indeed, time and again, the case of Debian, they frequently dene policies, codes of
hacker interventions exceed liberal publicity and enter squarely conduct, and even requisite skills and knowledge, rarely does
into the realm of actionsometimes even principled illegal di- this extend to the level of political belief. In some cases, this
rect action.10 political agnosticism, as I have termed it elsewhere (Coleman
Hackers also distinguish themselves by their avid embrace 2013), follows from a drive to congure project goals nar-
of political intersectionality: hackers exhibit a high degree of rowly, often around technical or civil liberties goals alone. In
tolerance for working across ideological lines. In many proj- other instances, as with Anonymous, a more radical form of
ects, pragmatic judgments often trump ideological oneslead- impurity is perceptible: dening Anonymous within delin-
ing to situations where, say, an anticapitalist anarchist might eated political parameters would be tantamount to conning
work in partnership with a liberal social democrat without fric- and strangling its very purpose and spirit.
tion or sectarian inghting. Let me illustrate with an eminent It would be overly simplistic to claim that the distinct forms
case: self-professed anarchist hacker Jeremy Hammond is now that hacker politics assumethe tendency for hackers to
serving a decade-long stint in jail for acts of computer intru- supplement publicity with deeds and their accentuated will-
sion and corporate sabotage coordinated with colleagues under ingness to work across ideological differencesfollow in any
the mantle of Anonymous. Hammond dedicated most of his deterministic way from the craft and craftiness of hacking,
adult existence to demolishing capitalism and the liberal state, from the fact that hackers are avid makers and problem
aiming to engender a more egalitarian society through all sorts solvers with an antiauthoritarianism and crafty bent, but it
of anarchist and environmental political endeavors, often in would be equally simplistic to entirely discount them in our
ways that had nothing to do with technology. But as a hacker, accounting of the contemporary shape of hacker politics.
his interest was piqued by the activist activities of Anonymous.
Initially he refused to contribute, put off by the crass and often Conclusion: Weapons of the Geek
racist language tolerated among the Anonymous ranks. But
We have seen that hackers perform politics in a variety of ways,
engaging in politics for a variety of purposes, with a variety of
9. See Keizer (2012) for a defense of privacy on socialist grounds. ends in mind: from liberal, civic engagements designed to
10. Darin Barney (2013) convincingly argues that WikiLeaks, so enhance government statecraft to anarchic attempts to develop
identied with a liberal project of publicity, in fact sharply deviates from software and communities that exist outside of the capitalist
a liberal logic, instead relying on tactics that exceed debate and also
economy and its concomitant liberal political institutions. In
threaten the very core of liberal governance. A distinct though related
and perceptiveargument has been posed by Johan Sderberg (2013),
who notes that even though hackers are wedded to theories of techno- 11. As a graduate student rightly reminded me during a workshop,
logical determinism, they nevertheless still engage in collective action to pragmatism itself can work ideologically; indeed, it can be thus posed as a
ght for change. He not only highlights the disjuncture between deter- core hacker political sensibility. It is still worthwhile to highlight how this
ministic ideas and hacker political practices but also examines how the- embrace of pragmatism, however it is dened, allows for some hackers to
ories of determinism can form the very impetus for action. work together in spite of holding different political goals and aims.

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S000 Current Anthropology Volume 58, Supplement 15, February 2017

spite of these differences, central to the contemporary inten- a handful of individuals but a larger mass of hackers. In fact,
sication of hacker politics have been a handful of events PWthe Toronto-based Dutch hacker discussed in the open-
what historian Bill Sewell (2005) calls critical events. These ing of this essay who was so certain of the role played by tech-
exceptional moments have been crucial in setting the politics nologies and events as political motivatorshimself possesses
of hacking on a new path not only for the changes they im- a biography laden with the sociocultural cues and attributes
mediately trigger but also for their ability to serve as models covered in this essay. This is evident even from a glance at his
for emulation. The early days of hacking saw a smattering of LinkedIn page, where along with his many professional work
such episodes, but the most recent ones cataloged abovebe- experiences, he lists a diverse set of volunteer afliations, with
ginning with WikiLeaks, followed by a burst of multiyear ac- a range of free spaces, informal hacker collectives, engineering
tivity from Anonymous, and being capped off, nally, with associations, liberal nonprots, and policy organizations:
Snowdens megaleakhave far surpassed them in terms of geo-
political weightiness. Working Group Chair, Document Editor, Participant of
Still, it would not do to overemphasize the importance of IETF [Internet Engineering Task Force]
these critical events alone: without the shared sociocultural
conditions inventoried in this piece, such events would have member, Electronic Frontier Foundation
been less likely to manifest themselves, or at least so explo-
Cryptographer, Cypherpunks
sively. The particular forms that contemporary hacker politi-
cal activities take are necessarily heterogeneous, but the attri-
Co-Founder, HackLab.TO
butes addressed here constitute a shared set of cultural practices,
sensibilities, and even political tactics that are helpful to consider Founding Member, The Libreswan Project
under a general rubric: weapons of the geek. This is a mo-
dality of politics that obviously sits in direct contrast to the member, Hippies from Hell [hacker] Collective
weapons of the weak, a term the political scientist and an-
thropologist James Scott (1985) used in his book of the same Like PW, many hackers of the weapons of the geek family
name to capture the unique nature of clandestine peasant pol- hold multiple relationships to each other through collective
itics. While weapons of the weak embody tactics used by eco- projects and free spaces; in his case, PW has participated in
nomically marginalized populationssmall-scale illicit acts, such a number of these groups for over a decade. Nevertheless, had I
as foot dragging and vandalismthat do not appear on their featured someone else, say, an avowedly leftist hacker, her list
surface to be political, weapons of the geek encompass a range would likely include a smattering of technical projects but also
of political interventionsrecognized as suchand exercised leftist hack labs or anarchist technology collectives. Geeks and
by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the hackers are not bound to a singular political sentiment or even
center of economic life.12 format, and they certainly do not agree on how social change
To those familiar with Scotts work, connecting hackers should proceed. But what they all have in common is that their
with some of the poorest and most exploited members of political tools, and to a lesser degree their tactical sensibilities
societywith the subalternmay strike one as ironic or just their willingness to work across political lines and for a smaller
plain misguided. But what Scotts work on weapons of the number, their willingness to engage in risky illegal acts of di-
weak so masterfully displayed was that political formations rect actionemerge from the concrete experiences of their craft.
of resistance often exhibit both a logic and artistry tied to Still, under less auspicious conditions, the bloom of hacker
concrete material and historical conditions. As craftspeople, politics of today could tomorrow wilt and wither away. One
hackers develop independent habits of critical thinking, build of the many threats to hacker politicization comes in the form
autonomous communities and infrastructures, and engage with of a particular breed of commercial culture: that of Silicon
law to reform or even negate it in ways to assert their rights to Valleystyle entrepreneurship. While this ideology of devel-
be hackers; closely related, craftiness and antiauthoritarianism opment emerged from California, it has now diffused itself
are not only commensurable with the types of direct action to major metropolitan centers across the globe, including New
and law-breaking tactics common to hacker politics today but York, Austin, Denver, Boston, Shanghai, London, and Berlin
also help explain why a portion of hackers are willing to take (see Barbrook and Cameron 1996; Marwick 2013; Neff 2012;
on such risk in the rst place. Turner 2006). Autonomous hacker sensibilities and projects
But for these conditions and characteristics to exert inu- have long been and are routinely co-opted by these economic
ence, they must exist widely, reected in the life histories not of forces, aesthetically adopted for corporate imperatives in hack-
athons (Irani 2015), or colonized outright by incentivizing in-
12. For a thoughtful and detailed discussion of how distinct political dividual professionalization and careerism (Delfanti and Sder-
tactics of hackers, including leaking, breaching, pirating, and DDoSing, berg 2015).
interface with different modalities of power, see Rosado-Murillo and Just how this relationship will unfold remains to be seen.
Kelty (2017). In a great many instances, steady employment can grant security

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Coleman Weapons of the Geek 000

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